Themed Set: Semiramis

2 comments September 27th, 2008 Headsman

As a gauzy figure of Orientalist fantasy, the half-legendary (at least) Bronze Age queen Semiramis is hard to top.

Supposedly a Babylonian ruler, the exploits of Semiramis — erotic, politic, possibly magic — have been worthy of otherly projection from Dante on down.

Herodotus (to whom she was already archaic) has her a pan-Asian ruler; the guy whose proclivities gave us the term “masochism” wrote a novel about her (but good luck finding it in English). Of course, Queen S. was divinely descended and radiantly beautiful; in the general legend, she becomes queen when her husband King Ninus is killed (or in some versions, when she kills him), rules competently (or aggressively, or simply lustfully), then maybe gets killed by her son. This bare scaffolding will enact many a play. And the costumes!

Thanks, Rossini.

Check out some versions of her myth here, here and the hostile Armenian version here. Rumor has it her tomb is quite the find, too.

In Boccaccio’s Famous Women, she’s a girl who knows how to have a good time, but invents the chastity belt to keep her female courtiers in line, or possibly to reduce competition. (More about this volume here (pdf), though this review doesn’t have a lot to say about our heroine.)

In the dour outlook of a particular brand of fundamentalist Protestant, Semiramis can also be a sort of proto-pagan, a former harlot (natch) who invented goddess-worship. (A seminal text in this theory is this 19th century pamphlet by Rev. Alexander Hislop.)

Does it say anywhere that she built Babylon? Eh. It does now!


Semiramis Building Babylon, by Edgar Degas (1861)

So what does Semiramis have to do with the ultimate sanction? Not much … but thanks for reading.

She breaks the monotony a little bit — and what do you know? She makes two blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameos for totally unrelated (to each other or, really, to Semiramis) executions this weekend.

Update: And the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are sometimes attributed to her as the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis. So what if that’s almost certainly wrong … doesn’t the name just take you right there?

On this day..

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